- Unsettled Worlds:Aesthetic Emplacement in Willa Cather's My Ántonia
Storytelling, narrative viewpoint, and regional geography form a popular and theoretically rich nexus in the critical debates surrounding Willa Cather's My Ántonia. A number of scholars (e.g., Funda, Holmes, McElhiney, Millington, Selzer, and Woolley) have pointed out Cather's insistent return to the oral tradition in the novel, and most read the emphasis on storytelling as Cather's way of endorsing Ántonia Shimerda's perspective and privileging her experiences as more authentic than those of the novel's narrator, Jim Burden. These claims emerge most often from examinations of the competing voices in the novel: Jim, Ántonia, and the unnamed narrator of the introduction. Within this focus on narrative perspective, two common strains have emerged in the scholarship: first, readers (including Funda, McElhiney, Harris, and Tellefsen) tend to equate the narrator of the introduction with Cather herself and, second, they read the novel's competing perspectives strictly in terms of a competition for authenticity or credibility. This debate, in turn, often extends to thematic considerations of landscape and region. That is to say, the authenticity of experience or narrative voice is often coded geographically in terms of the relationship that exists between the character and the natural world (see Rosowski, "Willa Cather and the Fatality of Place" 88-90 and Saposnik-Noire 178). In these regional considerations, Ántonia's connection to Bohemia almost always trumps Jim's connection to the "old South" of his early childhood (see Jones 107-08).
Taking these theoretical and textual concerns into account, this essay distances itself from debates about which narrative viewpoint or regional affiliation comes across as more or less credible and, instead, focuses our [End Page 269] attention on the novel's narrative indeterminacy and regional instability. My Ántonia offers a layering of narrative perspectives that should provoke a more thoroughgoing readerly skepticism, belying the notion of a "privileged" voice in the novel. Urging critics to be more rigorous in their reading of the novel's "disingenuous and self-deluded narrator," Blanche Gelfant first and most famously claimed that "[o]ur persistent misreading of Willa Cather's My Ántonia rises from a belief that Jim Burden is a reliable narrator" (60). Taking this advice to heart, I extend this lack of reliability to the narrator of the introduction. Rather than clearing a space for Cather's authorial voice, the 1918 and 1926 introductions complicate the debate surrounding authenticity by adding yet another level of unreliability to My Ántonia. In other words, my reading suggests that the introduction's narrator might be equally "disingenuous" and, as such, she anticipates the novel's narrative indeterminacy: the limited and uncertain perspectives, the layering of competing voices, male and female, and the inextricable oral and written traditions that unsettle the aesthetic uniformity of the text.
This consideration of narrative unreliability segues into an exploration of what I am calling the novel's "regional instability." There is a real androgyny to region in My Ántonia as old and new worlds collide, one that complements the novel's gender repressions, insecurities, and ambiguities. Bohemian, Southern, Midwestern, and even quasi-mystical landscapes coexist within the narrative as shifting sites of alienation and identification for Jim and Ántonia. Amidst this instability, through Jim's narrative, I argue that Cather offers readers alternative versions of "aesthetic emplacement": artistic practices that center or ground the unsettling experience of displacement.1 To develop this line of thinking, I examine the often overlooked importance of the South in My Ántonia, paying particular attention to the figure of Blind d'Arnault as a source of identification for Jim and his aesthetic practices. My readings of the introduction and the South set up a theorization of how regional displacement and aesthetic emplacement highlight the symbolic connections central to the experiences of im/migration in the novel. The shorthand compound "im/migration" is not intended to elide the very real historical and political distinctions between immigration and migration. The freedom to migrate internationally or intranationally remains a fraught topic of debate across scholarly disciplines, but Cather's focus in My Ántonia on the necessary connection between place and subjectivity suggests that both the...